Photo by: Troy Blendell
Article written by dance major Gabrielle Stearns
, PhD, began her dance career learning moves from MTV music videos. Today, she’s an associate professor of dance at Duke University, choreographer, author, and dance scholar. Her first book, Funding Bodies
, recounts the last 50 years of dance funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and how economic pressures have shaped dance in the United States.
I spoke with Sarah about her career, research, and what’s in store for her upcoming Friends of Dance Lecture. Read on for that conversation and attend Sarah Wilbur’s lecture, Should I Dance for Free?, at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Dance Studio on March 21, 2023.
Gabrielle Stearns: Tell us a little bit about the highlights of your dance career and how you ended up where you are now.
Sarah Wilbur: I was the kid who always danced around but didn't start formal dance training until college. What I do credit as my dance training from life are things like TV and movies and MTV. I did musicals, I love theater, and I knew doing art works and making theater with my friends introduced me to people I would never know otherwise, who I really was inspired by. Also in a geographically and racially segregated space, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, encounters with cultural differences could be avoided, because of geography and things like that. So the arts were always the space of heterogeneity. Really great people find themselves together and I was really attracted to that.
I didn't have any practical reason to go into the arts, but I stayed in Milwaukee for undergrad. I majored in dance and my twin brother majored in business, and he would just mock me on the way to school. We would drive together in a 1973 Dodge Dart we inherited from my aunt Roberta and he'd just make fun of me. He'd be like, “you majoring in dance is like me majoring in golf. I mean, I like it but come on.” And so there's a stubborn part of me that was like, oh, yeah, just you wait. And so there was no logical reason for me to major in dance. But I majored in dance in a BFA program that required no audition, which was cool for me. I dove in headfirst and thought, okay, this is amazing. I had a lot to learn, but I also didn't have as much to unlearn as people who had come through a conservatory or a heavy ballet background. It didn't really didn't matter if it was a tap routine, a musical, or a contemporary experimental performance art thing - I was in. I was all in.
Long story short, I got my BFA in 1996. And then there's a local nonprofit in Milwaukee called Danceworks. It's a 501C3, where you have multiple studios, multiple cultural traditions and dances represented, different age ranges, and a lot of different teachers and performers. I call it my trade school education. It was where I landed after college, and I was asked to corral my colleagues from the BFA program and create a dance collective. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was 22, but I had this gift of starting a dance collective with all the people I went to college with, and then teaching in the studio, teaching in schools, choreographing musicals, and zigzagging around for about ten years.
After ten years of that, the burnout with nonprofit organizing was pretty high. My partner at the time was an actor and aspiring comedian and we had to decide to go to Los Angeles or New York for that work. We wound up going to Los Angeles and being there for ten years. L.A. is not a city, it’s like 157 little cities. And it's a syllabus for dance and every iteration you can imagine. So while we were there, I went to UCLA and I did the MFA in dance in the Department of World Arts and Cultures, which is a global studies approach to dance. And I think that's my approach now too. Fast forward into teaching and research and why I stay with academia is the privilege of time and space to move and think and process.
Gabrielle Stearns: Can you tell us a little more about what led you to dance academia?
Sarah Wilbur: I think universities and academia can't do everything, politically speaking, for dance. But I think that there's a part of me that was always attracted to how dance in the context of the university legitimized things that I was feeling. And what's so weird about that is I don't think I think the same way anymore. At least when I was 18 going into undergrad, the study of dance was my rational side. The dancing was also allowing me to have an experience of sociality, and emotion, and all those things. I liked coupling those together.
Sometimes academic dance can feel very rational, square, and alienating to people. But I actually found that dancing out in the world was like this. Outside of the university, sometimes formal dance classes felt almost too disciplinary. A silence sets in because it’s a nonverbal form most of the time, but I think as a verbal person I always loved academia because then I could embrace all of it. I feel like in academia there is more permission to be both of those sides of yourself in a way that might be missing in other fields. You can feel your feelings but also your evidence and your claims. These things all come together.
Gabrielle Stearns: Your research focuses on economic incentives and institutionalized norms of art production. What drew you to those topics?
Sarah Wilbur: I was moving through so many different types of spaces in dance in my 20s and early 30s. I could move from teaching a dance class at Elm Creative Arts Elementary, to Golda Meir Middle School, to the Aurora Adult Day Health Senior Center. Inside each of these contexts, the language I used had to change and the strategies for getting folks to move were slightly different. I felt really resistant to this idea that there's a one size fits all approach to art and artistry.
When I was doing my MFA at UCLA, I asked my mentor, Susan Foster, if anybody was writing about the history of institutional support for dance in the United States on the economic side of things. She said there are so many gaps in the knowledge base but here's a few people who've looked at it. And I said, well, doesn't that seem unethical that we're learning dance history, but we're never learning the economic history that allows things to present a certain way? I realized I love dancing, but everybody's writing about dancing. I had to ask how does money motivate movement. How do economic incentives like grants and funding recruit and reward a certain way of organizing oneself in dance at different historical periods? I didn't realize it but when I was in undergrad, I was being told and taught indirectly that I had to form a dance company with a regular ensemble that toured repertory dances to concert stages. That was the sort of seal of approval and the sort of endowed way of organizing in dance. I wanted to understand how my generation of artists who came into the field around the mid 1990s were taught by people who were 15 to 20 years older than them, who were in a very different economic moment. And how can we start to hold each other accountable for the way those conditions have changed? It’s a really different economic landscape. I guess I just wanted to be part of a generation of scholars who were practicing artists who said, we’ve got to slow down and revise our understanding of dance history to help future generations start to see how the systems that they work through are going to pull them in certain directions. And they have choices to make inside of that.
Gabrielle Stearns: Can you give us a preview of what you plan on discussing in your Friends of Dance Lecture?
Sarah Wilbur: I was invited to talk about the book I wrote and was published in 2021 called Funding Bodies. It's a 50 year history of dance grant making at the National Endowment for the Arts. I do bring my historical slides and my conversation around the book with me, but I also want to hear about Atlanta. Because that's the next step, to become students of our own infrastructure. I ask how do you proceed with doing all of the non-dance labor that is required to be a dancer, like all the fundraising and looking for opportunities? And how do you look for a place where your interests will be allowed to flourish? There is a lot of assimilation in dance. Sometimes you take the gig because it's a gig. And maybe it's not totally what you do, but you learn how to fit into it. Or the worst thing is to take a gig that feels way outside of your wheelhouse and then you start to lose sense of your purpose. So I'm saying, let's find our life force and find our purpose. But you have to study a little bit of the mechanics of it to make that make sense.
Thank you Sarah and Gabrielle!
Attend our free Friends of Dance Lecture with Dr. Sarah Wilbur on March 21, 2023 at 7:30pm at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts Dance Studio. Pre-registration is not required.